(photo credit: AP)
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was heading to Algeria on Monday for a three-day state visit, with tensions running high after an Algerian government minister said France's leader was backed by a "Jewish lobby."
Sarkozy and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika are set to sign a partnership treaty, and Sarkozy is expected to sign energy contracts with natural gas-rich Algeria, which was long part of France's colonial holdings in North Africa.
But those plans have been largely overshadowed by a troubling comment from Mohamed Chedif Abbas, Algeria's minister for veterans. He said in an interview last week that Sarkozy was brought to power by a "Jewish lobby that has a monopoly on French industry" - a comment that stunned French officials.
Abbas also said France must recognize its colonial-era crimes in Algeria, or "reconciliation was not a possibility."
The Algerian president called Sarkozy several days later to distance himself from the minister's position. After that conversation, Sarkozy, whose maternal grandfather was Jewish, said he considered the matter "closed."
The trip will be Sarkozy's first full state visit to Algeria since his May election, though he made a brief stop there in July for a working visit.
France's one-time colonial jewel won independence in 1962 after a brutal eight-year war, and that troubled chapter of the countries' past has continually resurfaced to hurt the countries' ties.
Relations have been particularly strained since France's parliament passed a law in 2005 noting the "positive" effects of colonialism. The language was later removed, but a long-awaited friendship treaty between the two countries was frozen because of it.
French presidential spokesman David Martinon said the two countries would sign a 10-year partnership agreement during Sarkozy's visit, referring to it as a "simplified friendship treaty."
While some Algerian politicians have asked France to formally apologize for its brutality during the colonial era, Sarkozy has ruled out that possibility. Aides said, however, that Sarkozy would say during the trip that he thinks the colonial system was unjust.
"We must not ignore (the past) but come to terms with it," Sarkozy said in an interview this weekend with Algeria's APS news agency. "That will require a bit more time for both of us, because there are wounds on both sides that have not yet healed."
Sarkozy said the countries should get to work in the meantime on concrete efforts on energy and jobs. He was accompanied on the trip by 150 business leaders.
After a similar trip in October to another North African nation, Morocco, Sarkozy secured â‚¬3 billion in new contracts.
The president told APS that he hoped to secure natural gas contracts in Algeria to "guarantee France's supply until 2019."
He also said the two planned to sign a nuclear cooperation treaty. New contracts could provide up to 7,000 new jobs in Algeria, he said.
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